Kendrick Lamar is wearing black sandals and white socks. It’s not a look that you associate with rappers — or with anyone, really, except possibly Alpine butterfly hunters. And yet here is Lamar, striding socks-and-sandals-first through a studio that sprawls across the second floor of a funkily dilapidated warehouse building just east of downtown Los Angeles.
Lamar has come to this scruffy corner of the city’s Arts District for a photo shoot. Someone turns on a stereo, blasting a playlist Lamar chose himself, a mix of vintage soul and old-school hip-hop: Bill Withers’ “Harlem,” Rick James’ “Give It to Me Baby,” De La Soul’s “Me, Myself and I,” 2Pac’s “All Eyez on Me.” Lamar sits down in front of a mirror to get a quick haircut from one of his friends, who has brought along an electric trimmer. Another of Lamar’s friends pipes up: “Those are some interesting huaraches, Kendrick. I didn’t know you wore sandals.” Lamar chuckles. Maybe, someone suggests, Lamar will start a new footwear trend. The rapper grins. “This look?” he says. “No one can make it trendy.”
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Perhaps not. But then again, the story of Lamar’s career is one of improbable trendsetting — of transforming the marginal into the popular, of smuggling counterculture into the cultural mainstream. He was a darling of the cognoscenti — the leading light of the Los Angeles-based Black Hippy collective, a favorite of rap-Internet nerds — before his 2012 major-label debut catapulted him aboveground and made him a star. That album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, was riveting and ambitious, a gangsta bildungsroman about Compton street life whose cinematic sweep justified its heady subtitle: “A short film by Kendrick Lamar.” His second album aimed even higher. To Pimp a Butterfly, released last March, is a monument to maximalism, based, seemingly, on a determination to cram in as much music, as many ideas and emotions, as its 78:51 running time will bear. There’s hip-hop and soul and funk and jazz, autobiography and agitprop and history and reportage, politics and punchlines, exultation and anger, joy and suffering, James Brown and James Baldwin. It was a self-conscious tour de force, and an undeniable one, instantly canonized by critics. It reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 797,000 copies and counting, according to Nielsen Music.
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To Pimp a Butterfly has elevated Lamar, a diminutive (5-foot-5) 28-year-old who raps in a cartoon pirate’s rasp, to a plateau that few musicians attain. He is not just pop’s most acclaimed artist. He is the de facto leader of a left-field movement that is galvanizing hip-hop. He has stepped into the heroic-prophetic role previously occupied by some of American music’s most illustrious figures: Aretha Franklin in 1967, Marvin Gaye in 1971, Chuck D in 1989. In fact, the arrival of To Pimp a Butterfly at a moment of intense national reckoning with issues of racial justice has made Lamar the kind of music idol who transcends music. To be sure, he’s a fearsome rapper, capable of out-spitting anyone alive. But he also is an existentialist bard whose work can sit comfortably alongside acclaimed literary voices of present-day black protest, writers like Claudia Rankine and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Perhaps most surprising: Lamar is the toast of the music biz. On Feb. 15, the industry will gather for the 58th annual Grammy Awards at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, just 14 miles due north of Compton. Lamar goes into the ceremony with 11 nominations, one shy of Michael Jackson’s record dozen in the post-Thriller year of 1984. Those nominations represent the unlikely consensus that has formed around Lamar, uniting bizzers and bohemians, Taylor Swift and Black Lives Matter protestors. The recognition is “long overdue,” says Pharrell Williams, who co-wrote and co-produced “Alright,” which is up for four Grammys. “His music is a part of the conversation,” he adds, crediting Lamar’s “fresh approach” to addressing “exhausted subjects.”
Says Lamar: “The album just had a deeper impact than I expected, because it touched so many homes, and not just in my own community. I guess I’m just speaking words that need to be heard in these times.”
Lamar is an amiable guy with a quick smile, but he’s at his most effusive onstage and in the recording booth. Out of the spotlight, in the company of strangers, he can be diffident; glad-handing isn’t his thing. But surreal times call for extreme measures, which is why Lamar devoted several weeks on either side of the new year to an industry charm offensive. He taped a concert for the venerable PBS live-music broadcast Austin City Limits and made the rounds to NPR, The New York Times and other press outlets. In short, Lamar has undertaken an old-fashioned Grammy lobbying campaign. He makes no bones about his desire to run the table at the awards. “I want to win them all,” he says.
He has been down this road before. In 2014, Lamar received seven Grammy nominations. He was shut out. In three big categories — best new artist, best rap album and best rap performance — Lamar lost to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. Lamar’s Grammy snub was greeted by such hue and cry that Macklemore apologized to Lamar in a text message that he then posted to Instagram, quasi-disavowing his own victory, a move that some saw as unseemly — a white rapper making politically correct noises while reaping the rewards of privilege. But Lamar took the apology gracefully.
“[The Grammy defeats] would have been upsetting to me if I’d known that was my best work, if I had nothing new to offer,” he says. “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is great work, but it’s not my best work. To Pimp a Butterfly is great. I’m talking about the connection the record made. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City made a connection. But To Pimp a Butterfly made a bigger connection.”
Lamar hopes that connection will extend to Grammy voters — and not, he says, merely for his sake. “It’s bigger than me. When we think about the Grammys, only Lauryn Hill and Outkast have won album of the year. This would be big for hip-hop culture at large.”
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Lamar’s Grammy fate remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that the success of To Pimp a Butterfly is a watershed moment for hip-hop’s “new generation” — an exclamation point marking rap’s turn in the direction of the weirder and more wide open.
A few years ago, at the height of the coke-rap craze, there was a sense that hip-hop was moving in lockstep; more recently, Drake and Drakeism have dominated hip-hop’s sound and sensibility. Today, though, rap feels fertile, unpredictable, with new voices and fresh styles popping up within, and just on the fringes of, the mainstream. You can hear it in the trippy experiments of A$AP Rocky and the ASAP Mob; in Earl Sweatshirt’s brooding wordsmithery; in the manically musical boasts of Azealia Banks; in Chance the Rapper’s prolific dispatches from the broken streets of Chicago; in the novelistic reportage of Vince Staples, Lamar’s fellow Los Angeles gangsta-rap revitalizer. For Staples, the vitality can be traced — you guessed it — to the Internet. “I feel like there are more opportunities now to show who you are and where you come from, and that people are making the most of those opportunities,” says Staples. “That’s why we’re getting such great music right now.”
Asked to name favorite fellow travelers, Lamar cites Chance the Rapper, the Brooklyn ’90s-rap revivalist Joey Badass and Isaiah Rashad, Lamar’s labelmate on Top Dawg Entertainment. For Lamar, these young rappers represent a new vanguard, a cohort of 20-somethings who belie criticism of millennials as disengaged and apathetic. “When everybody looks at our generation of kids, they always call us the misfits — you know, like we just don’t give a damn,” he says. “But these individuals, they show that we do have some sense. Our generation just needs the proper people to tell us about our problems, about our wrongs and our rights.”
For years, the default posture of rappers has been to reject role-model status. To embrace the responsibility that comes with a lofty perch, as Lamar does, long has been viewed as gauche and pretentious.
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It’s one of many things that distinguishes Lamar as a hip-hop classicist. Much of today’s hip-hop speaks the Esperanto of the Internet, the language of the meme, the quick hit; Lamar specializes in longform, spinning yarns that sprawl like a film or novel. When asked about the Internet-fluency of rappers like Drake and Kanye West (whose recent single, “No More Parties in L.A.,” Lamar guested on), he laughs. “That’s not my talent,” says Lamar. “Those guys, they’re gifted in that department. Hopefully, I’ll get them talents. But for now I’ma stay in my lane.”
That lane, among other things, runs backward to the hallowed past. To Pimp a Butterfly mixes the deft beats and production of collaborators like Sounwave, Flying Lotus and Williams with a live-band excavation of the soul and funk that Lamar heard on his parents’ turntable growing up. The result is a big, burly mix that draws heavily on the protest sounds of the ’60s and ’70s black power heyday: James Brown and P-Funk, free jazz and Black Arts Movement spoken word, and Sly Stone, who gave Lamar his priestly blessing when the two met recently. (“Sly told me: ‘It’s in you.’ ”) Lamar was determined to make these musical sources feel new, and now. “I wanted to have a time capsule on the record,” he says. “But I knew it would be fresh because a fresh kid is doing it. I said: ‘That’s what’s going to make it new — my lyrics and my words.’ ”
Take “King Kunta,” the percolating single co-produced by Sounwave, Michael Kuhle and Lamar’s longtime friend, multi-instrumentalist/rapper Terrace Martin. It’s an exuberant boast, a declaration of supremacy, complete with scathing disses (“I don’t want you monkey-mouth motherf—ers sitting in my throne again”) and witty quips directed at rappers who rely on ghostwriters (“I swore I wouldn’t tell/But most of y’all share bars like you got the bottom bunk in a two-man cell”). But the song takes on much more: questions about ambition and desire, about the siren call of fame and the score-settling in the hood, about self-love and self-doubt. All of this is elaborately woven together with allusions to icons of African-American music and culture — Alex Haley’s Roots, Brown’s “The Payback,” Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk,” Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” The song clocks in at slightly less than four minutes, but it toggles through centuries of history. Also: It’s stone funky.
One line in “King Kunta” stands out: “Stuck a flag in my city, everybody’s screaming ‘Compton.’ ” All of Lamar’s music is to some extent about his hometown, about a thoughtful young man navigating the lures and pitfalls of a place scourged by racism and violence. Lamar was born in Compton on June 17, 1987; the name on his birth certificate reads Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. (His parents named him after Eddie Kendricks, co-founder of The Temptations.) The touchstones of Lamar’s biography are well-known to fans: how, at the age of 8, he watched Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre filming the “California Love” video just down the street from his house; how he made straight As at Compton’s Centennial High School; his meteoric rise from teenage mixtape rapper to Top Dawg signee to Dre protege.
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Of course, it was Dre and his N.W.A bandmates who made Compton mythic. There’s no mistaking the fact that Lamar has become N.W.A’s heir: You can draw a straight line from the infuriated war-cry of “F— Tha Police” to Lamar’s words in “Alright”: “We hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street, for sure.” Lamar’s anthems of black pain and black transcendence have hit hard in the aftermath of Ferguson, Mo., Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice. But if you ask Lamar’s collaborators, they’ll tell you the reach of To Pimp a Butterfly transcends its racial politics.
“It’s not just a black thing,” says Thundercat, the bass virtuoso who anchors the low end on Butterfly. “It’s everybody’s struggle he’s presenting. What Kendrick is saying on a song like ‘Alright’ — people need to hear that message. I was in Paris during the [Nov. 13, 2015, terror] attacks. I feel like this album has been the soundtrack to every last thing that has been happening in this world.”
The sentiment is echoed by saxophonist Kamasi Washington, whose Coltranean wail can be heard throughout Butterfly. “Audiences are looking for truth right now,” says Washington. “That’s the demand that Kendrick’s addressing.” (Washington was a beneficiary, you might say, of the Kendrick Effect: His 2015 jazz opus The Epic was one of the year’s breakout critical hits.)
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To Pimp a Butterfly came together in long, late-night jam sessions in several recording studios, in particular one “undisclosed location” — a downtown Los Angeles spot that Lamar calls “our own little secret dungeon hideout.” That place is still a gathering spot for Lamar’s comrades: Thundercat, Martin, Sounwave, Flying Lotus and others. Lamar often drops by. Does that mean he’s working on new music?
“I’m getting together with them all the time — but it’s not for my sessions,” he says. “I might just go in and sit and just vibe.”
But does Lamar know where he’s headed on his next album?
“As far as content, what I want to get across, I have an idea,” he says. “But even that’s still premature. Once I get back in that studio, things evolve into other things.”
In the meantime, the Grammys loom, and the acclaim piles up. December brought a rave review from an exalted “critic”: President Barack Obama told People magazine that his favorite song of the year was “How Much a Dollar Cost?,” Lamar’s parable about a homeless man who, the song reveals, is God in disguise.
This past fall, Lamar got to meet his famous fan face to face. Obama hosted the rapper, he says, “up at the big house.” The White House, that is — the one pictured on To Pimp a Butterfly’s vivid album cover, and where Lamar imagines relocating the Compton swap meet on the torrid album-opening jam “Wesley’s Theory.”
(The visit, among other things, was undertaken in support of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, a program that encourages inner-city youth mentoring. In a brief video posted online, Lamar can be seen chatting with the president in the Oval Office where, he says in a voiceover, the discussion focused on “topics concerning the inner city, the problems, the solutions.”)
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Lamar is tight-lipped about the details of his White House pilgrimage, but he will say this: The time he spent with Obama was eye-opening. The jobs of president of the United States and rapper are, well, of a different magnitude. But in 2016, Lamar doesn’t just wield a mic, he carries a mantle: Now more than ever, he knows the heavy-lies-the-crown burden of the anointed. It’s a topic that Lamar digs into on Butterfly’s closing track, “Mortal Man,” a confession of responsibility and inadequacy. “You tell me my song is more than a song, it’s surely a blessing,” raps Lamar. “As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression.”
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“I’ve felt that pressure in Compton, looking at the responsibility I have over these kids,” he says. “The world started turning into a place where — where so many were getting no justice. You got to step up to the plate. ‘Mortal Man’ is not me saying, ‘I can be your hero.’ ‘Mortal Man’ is questioning: ‘Do you really believe in me to do this?’ ”
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Lamar says: “The way people look at me these days — that’s the same way I looked at President Obama before I met him. We tend to forget that people who’ve attained a certain position are human. When [the president] said to my face what his favorite record was — I understood that, no matter how high-ranking you get in this world, you’re human.”
Lamar’s time with Obama taught him something else, too. “No matter how high the pedestal you reach, we all still like a beat,” he says. “Even the president has got to hear that snare drum.”